TAMPA — What went up is coming down.
For nearly two months, the Lightning rose. They won at an unsustainable pace, with winning streaks of 10 and 11 games, rocketing up the Atlantic Division standings.
The story has changed. The Lightning lost their season-high fourth straight game Thursday, 5-2 to the Blackhawks at Amalie Arena, and they did it in rough fashion, blowing a 2-0 third-period lead to the team at the bottom of the Central Division.
“It’s not good enough,” defenseman Victor Hedman said, summing up the Lightning’s effort. “We have to be better.”
Not only did the Lightning (40-19-5) give up a lead, they gave up five goals in 12:53. They eradicated what had been a decent first period (marred by penalties) and a strong second, turning the game into an embarrassing loss.
“This can’t happen again,” Hedman said. “It’s something we have to work on. It’s not Game 20. It’s Game 64. It’s crunch time. We have to get our game ready. We have to win games.”
Much of the damage was self-inflicted.
On the Blackhawks’ first goal, 4:36 into the third, Curtis McElhinney saved the initial shot, but new defenseman Zach Bogosian’s attempt to clear the puck bounced off Lightning forward Mitchell Stephens. The puck landed in front of Chicago wing Brandon Saad, who jammed it in.
Just 26 seconds later, the Lightning’s Anthony Cirelli failed to control a rebound, and Blackhawks rookie forward Dominik Kubalik scored.
Then, Chicago’s Slater Koekkoek got a shot through traffic, while Bogosian and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews screened McElhinney. It was the first goal of the season for Koekkoek, the defenseman the Lightning traded to the Blackhawks in January 2019.
Kubalik added a one-timer off a power play and then an empty-netter to round out his first hat trick and the Blackhawks’ five goals against a team that a week ago had rarely given up three in a game.
“This wasn’t our best performance,” Point said. “I don’t think we can build much on this one.”
The Lightning had not lost four straight regular-season games since the 2016-17 season, when they did it twice. Their previous longest losing streak this season was three games, at the end of November.
The Lightning’s current skid is to Vegas and Arizona on the road, and to Toronto and Chicago at home. Tampa Bay previously had not lost consecutive regular-season games at Amalie since March 2018.
Before the skid, their defense had clamped down hard, not giving up more than three goals a game over 22 games. They’ve given up at least four in each of these losses.
“The alarming number of goals we’re giving up right now, it’s not a recipe for winning hockey games,” coach Jon Cooper said. “You have to dig your heels in and get back to work.”
He said the defense has “gone south as a group.” McElhinney and Andrei Vasilevskiy have allowed shots to go in that they were stopping two weeks ago. The team is allowing shots it hadn’t been giving up as well.
It’s easy to point to special teams right now, with the penalty kill in a dip and the power play struggling. But the Lightning went through an 11-game winning streak without the power play contributing. The penalty kill hasn’t been perfect, but giving up one goal a game, on average, is still near the top of the league.
The Lightning’s issues run deeper. The team needs a reset. It hasn’t lost five games in a row since 2013-14, in Cooper’s first full season at the helm.
First Period—None. Penalties—Murphy, Chi (Hooking), 4:25; Gourde, TB (Tripping), 6:54; Kane, Chi (Hooking), 8:20; Goodrow, TB (Holding), 13:15; Saad, Chi (High Sticking), 15:27; Killorn, TB (Tripping), 19:24.
Second Period—1, Tampa Bay, Point 23 (Kucherov, Hedman), 15:31. Penalties—Tampa Bay bench, served by Verhaeghe (Too Many Men on the Ice), 5:20; Murphy, Chi (Hooking), 10:38.
Third Period—2, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 31 (Point), 0:17. 3, Chicago, Saad 20 (Strome, Dach), 4:36. 4, Chicago, Kubalik 27 (Keith, Kane), 5:02. 5, Chicago, Koekkoek 1, 9:56. 6, Chicago, Kubalik 28 (Keith, DeBrincat), 11:43 (pp). 7, Chicago, Kubalik 29 (Saad), 17:29 (en). Penalties—Schenn, TB (Interference), 2:28; Koekkoek, Chi (Interference), 5:57; Kucherov, TB (Slashing), 10:35; Caggiula, Chi (Slashing), 19:28; Goodrow, TB (Roughing), 19:28; Bogosian, TB (Misconduct), 19:28; Paquette, TB (Misconduct), 19:28.
SOG—Chicago 11-6-10_27. Tampa Bay 10-17-11_38. PP opps—Chicago 1 of 6; Tampa Bay 0 of 5. Goalies—Chicago, Crawford 12-18-3 (38 shots-36 saves). Tampa Bay, McElhinney 8-7-2 (26-22). A—19,092 (19,092).